Point Austin: Welcome to Media World!
"Alternative" invasion conjures thoughts of contemporary journalism
This week, the Chronicle is hosting the annual Association of Alternative Newsmedia Conference, and dozens of visiting journalists (and production and business staffers) are in town, conferring, exchanging reporting methods and story tips, and of course partying. Don't swing any dead cats in the vicinity of Downtown bars, and if you get a chance, give a Texas welcome to that dazed, overheated wanderer shooting group selfies outside Stubb's – she's not just a tourist, she's a writer.
Presumably, it's a good moment to ponder the contemporary state of independent journalism, lightly signaled by that "Newsmedia" moniker. Until a few years ago (2011), the "N" in AAN meant "Newsweeklies," designating those newsprint relics of the Sixties that showed up on the weekends to tell you where to go and what to see, and ideally to provide an analytical sense of the underside of the city news beat. In most cities, we were "alternatives" in both style and substance. We covered the places and the stories that the dailies (and certainly the TV and radio stations) neglected, and from angles disdained in official journalism schools. Ideally, from the bottom up, with a dedication to uncovering injustice, but also with attention to the offbeat and the "weird" – embodying a conviction that the ongoing cultural insurgencies were just as important (if not as urgent) as the country's seemingly endless military adventures.
We still do all that, we hope, but now at a pace, constriction, and relentlessness that reflects a radically changed technological and economic environment. We are all "newsmedia" now, and competing daily not just with those dailies and other local media, but with a vast array of online news "sources" that vary from the encyclopedic, to the trivial, to the actively malicious, all with an equal access to the wilderness of the internet. While we were learning (and are still learning) how to ride that bronco, the Great Recession came and went – leaving most of the alternative outlets in an institutional precariousness we hadn't felt for a couple of decades. (Not coincidentally, the AAN conference is quite a bit smaller and less boisterous than it used to be.)
The Cultural Predicament
Nevertheless, we gamely muddle along in a media landscape that nobody – from The New York Times on down to the surviving neighborhood listservs – knows fully how to accommodate with "content," nor quite how to effectively "monetize." Plenty of our current readers are default "information wants to be free" folks – understandable enough when you've got the whole world in your smartphone pocket – but from this end of the telescope we're regularly reminded that reporters and writers and artists and production staff and ad salespeople need to eat, clothe themselves, and raise families, too.
Reporting, whether it's on City Hall or the Capitol or local culture, is expensive, because it requires real people spending large amounts of time pursuing other people, asking them questions that they often prefer not to answer, and analyzing, compiling, and delivering the results to readers in whatever formats work best. Just surfing the web won't cut it, although increasingly that seems to be the default process of too many would-be "journalists." That's our problem, yes, but in the long term it's also Austin's problem, because a diminished local media chorus means less independent information and a narrower culture – even while the city continues to grow, along with the need for those independent voices.
The Human Comedy
Those of us who work in these particular "alternative" trenches will be contemplating such questions this week, exchanging new ideas on how to answer them, bucking each other up with tales of successful investigations and stories broken, and schmoozing across Austin to feed our continuing conviction: In the naked city, there are millions of stories waiting to be told. That's what keeps most of us working in this cockamamie business, even while the financial returns become increasingly dubious and the larger political culture polarizes and collapses all around us.
Actually, that latter phenomenon is one more reason we do what we do. It's a reporter's cynical mantra that what's bad for the country is good for journalism, and that the follies of people like Donald Trump or Dan Patrick – political brothers from different mothers – are exactly the fuel that feeds the reporting fire. When establishment outlets like CNN hire political hacks like Trump enforcer Corey Lewandowski – who does not just despise real reporters but physically attacked one – the need for "alternative," or just independent news sources, is all the more obvious.
I welcome my colleagues from around the country, to a friendly, earnest, but often breathless boomtown that embodies all the strange contradictions of Texas: monied and poor, inclusive and segregated, sophisticated and ignorant, inviting and suspicious of strangers. We are large, we contain multitudes – and for at least one weekend, you've joined the astonishing parade.